Thursday, April 7, 2016

Nominating Conventions - Contested and Not

"A Convention not a Coronation" was one of the slogans of the "Moderate Republicans" during their unsuccessful effort to forestall the nomination of Senator Goldwater prior to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964. They failed, and Goldwater got nominated on the first ballot - as has every major party presidential candidate in my lifetime. But it was still taken for granted until relatively recently that it was up to the Convention to nominate the candidate, whether in one roll call or after several (or even 103 as infamously happened at the Democratic Convention in 1924).

In the early years of the Republic, as political parties established themselves, it was each party's congressional caucus that effectively determined its party's nominee. Sectional conflicts and the increasing democratization of American life in the Jacksonian era led to the replacement of congressional caucuses as nominating bodies by broader based party conventions - formal gatherings of delegates representing state party organizations. Up until the 1960s, such delegates were largely chosen by local and state party leaders ("bosses"), who often controlled the votes of their delegations. Hence the popularity of "Favorite Son" candidates, to whom a state's delegates might be committed until negotiations during the convention led to a consensus on a nominee. In a case of deadlock, that nominee might be an unexpected "dark horse." That term was coined at the Democratic Convention in 1844, when James K. Polk, a little-known former Governor of Tennessee emerged as the consensus nominee after the two leading candidates had both failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority (the amount then required). If I am not mistaken, the last real "dark horse" was Wendell Wilkie, nominated by the Republicans in 1940.

In the "Progressive Era," a few states adopted presidential primaries. In 1960, the first presidential election I really followed, John F. Kennedy ran in several primaries - notably Wisconsin and West Virginia - in order to demonstrate his electability (as a Roman Catholic). His victories in the primaries did not in themselves guarantee his nomination, but they helped him to persuade party bosses to take his candidacy seriously. In contrast, his principal rival, Senate majority Leader Lyndon Johnson didn't compete in any primaries at all but still expected to prevail at the convention. It was only during the 1st Ballot at the Los Angeles Convention, when Wyoming put Kennedy over the top, that his nomination was assured. 

Primaries grew in importance in the 1960s. Nelson Rockefeller's defeat in Oregon (a few days after his second wife gave birth, thus reminding everyone of Rockefeller's divorce) may have sealed the fate of his presidential ambitions. Eugene McCarthy's strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary evidently moved LBJ to decide to quit the race in March 1968. But that year's disorderly Democratic Convention in Chicago gave the nomination to Vice President Humphrey, the candidate of the party establishment, who had not run in even a single primary. After that, the Democrats and then the Republicans reformed their party procedures to encourage primaries and caucuses, and never again would someone be nominated who had not competed in the primaries.

The older system had its faults, to be sure. But a system that gave us Lincoln and FDR surely has something to recommend it!

The last major party convention whose outcome was in doubt was the Republican Convention in 1976, when Ronald Reagan came close to winning the nomination away from President Gerald Ford. Since the 1980s, each party's nomination has gone to the candidate who had already accumulated a majority of delegates in primaries and caucuses well before the Convention itself, which in turn has degenerated into a pre-planned performance to show off the party's unity - a "coronation." This new scenario is much preferred by party establishments to a crippling contest that could weaken the party in the general election to come.

So while those of us above a certain age can well remember when "contested" conventions were still the norm, such an event has become unusual by today's norms. Hence the excitement among some and the anxiety among many politicians and Republican party professionals as that prospect seems to be increasingly likely. Donald Trump may well be the frontrunner in the number of delegate votes won so far, but Donald Trump's unconventional candidacy has not motivated the party to unite behind him in advance of the convention. It is possible that whoever wins the nomination in Cleveland will face serious, uncompromising opposition at that convention - not only in the balloting but possibly in the rules, credentials, and platform committees, traditional locations of conflict at earlier conventions. There may not be riots in the streets as some have warned (and as actually happened as recently as the 1968 Democratic Convention). But, having effectively "forgotten" how to compete at a convention and if necessary select a "dark horse" compromise, it is hard to see what scenario will bring this convention to a satisfyingly happy end for the Republicans.

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